The devolution of control of the rail franchise (back in 2014) was welcomed along with the news that the Welsh Government would actively seek for the rail franchise to be run on a not for profit basis (something that Plaid have been calling for several years). This was important as it meant that we in Wales would be able to choose who operates its own railway for the first time. The not for dividend profit option makes the most sense as any profits made will remain within the franchise area rather than paying share holder dividends.
While that is positive stuff, it may be a case of glass half-full, as yet the element of Network Rail that covers Wales (and the marches) remains under the remit of the Department for Transport. Without full control of that portion of Network Rail the next Welsh Government will face a significant challenge when it comes to preparing for and delivering the next franchise; it is a task that must be accomplished.
One of the key elements in rebooting our economy is infrastructure investment and investing in our neglected railways. Many of our existing railway stations suffer from some pretty significant gaps in services, and so are underused. The final stage of the rail-link from Ebbw Vale to Newport needs to be completed and new railway stations at Caerleon (which has been in the local UDP since the 1980’s), Llanwern, Magor and Little Mill (with secure park and ride facilities) provide local communities with a regular rail service and reduce the ever-increasing traffic burden from already overcrowded roads.
Over twenty five years ago as a trainee journalist with the Pontypool Free Press, I interviewed commuters on wet and windy mornings at Cwmbran and Pontypool railway stations and wrote up news stories about the poor service and train overcrowding. I am consciously aware that we have not progressed as far as we could when it comes to developing and sustaining a decent rail service for commuters here in the South East - something which goes someway to explain why so many people chose to drive to and from work.
We need our railway stations to be real transport hubs with fully integrated local bus services and expanded safer secure reasonably priced parking. We also need better facilities at Abergavenny, Caldicot, Chepstow, Pontypool, Severn Tunnel Junction and Lydney railway stations. We need feasibility studies into the development of a Parkway Station at Little Mill and the possibilities of re-opening the old line from Little Mill to Usk along with the development of a new railway station at Usk.
Outside of the South East, the next Welsh Government should take a more strategic view and commit to rebuilding and reopening the line from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth and push to redevelop the line north to Caernarfon and Bangor. In Scotland, significant strides have been made to reopen; redevelop and build a coherent and integrated public transport system, something that we in Wales need to aspire to.
In Wales, we lag significantly behind Scotland, over the last 16 years there have been two successful railway re-openings carried out by Network Rail at the request of the National Assembly; the Vale of Glamorgan Railway Line (re-opened on Friday 10th June 2005) and the Ebbw Valley Railway Line (which was partially re-opened on Wednesday 6th February 2008). Unlike in Scotland here in Wales we have lacked any real political dynamism; as these were largely administrative rather than legislative projects.
Plaid Cymru believes that a revitalised not for profit railway service in Wales can and should lead to more areas of our country being opened up to both new and reopened rail services. This combined with the long overdue electrification of the valley lines no to mention the Great Western mainline to Swansea would be the basis for a decent rail network. Yet the job will remain only half done until full control of railway infrastructure is devolved to Wales so that both the development of the franchise and the development of our railway infrastructure can be planned together.